All together now, saddle up your drivers, put a pinch between your cheek and gum, and chant along with me: Boo S. A.! Boo S. A.! Boo S. A.!
Moonshine tastes good out of a Ryder Cup, don't it?
Man, that was fun. But before we go any further, let's officially welcome the Ryder Cup back to American sports conversation.
America loses three consecutive Ryder Cups, and five of six, and the Ryder Cup becomes as relevant as NHRA on the Deuce. But after the roars from Valhalla bounced off the Florida panhandle, ricocheted off the clubhouse at Brookline and caromed off a cypress tree at Pebble Beach, the country heard it loud and clear.
Even on a Sunday when the curtain was drawn at Yankee Stadium and the NFL continued its corporate march through our living rooms, Cap'n Zinger's boys played with enough moxie, charisma and steel to remind us once again: Damn, the U.S. can win one of these things.
It helps to have a guy named Boo saying he was so excited he felt "like a dog that done got a needle stuck in his behind to catch one of them bunnies at the greyhound track." And it helped to have a rookie named Hunter Mahan play as if the Fear Bank in his belly was bankrupt. It helped to have a couple of guys from Kentucky feasting on home-cooked fried chicken. And it helped to have America's new Sergio Garcia of Ryder Cups, Anthony Kim, out-Sergio Sergio in the ebullience and shot making department and make El Nino look like El Washed Up Old Man-O.
And, let's admit it: It helped that Tiger Woods was nowhere near the premises. There. I said it. So sue me.
Let's use that lightning rod topic to break this thing down. Just how did Team USA pull this off against a team that hadn't lost in this century, had the higher-ranked world players and was taking on a Tiger-less team?
The absence of Tiger was actually a good thing
Believe it or not, I'd been thinking this since the word came down in June that Woods was out for the year. Among the many thoughts I had – Well, no reason to watch the British or PGA; man, if his life is anything like mine, his wife's going to hate having him around more; and I wonder how many shots he'll win the '09 Masters by? – was one more: I bet the U.S. wins the Ryder Cup without him.
Obviously, it's an unquantifiable argument, and obviously, in Sunday singles, you have to like the idea of a Tiger Woods-Oliver Wilson showdown if you're looking for an American point. But Tiger and the Ryder Cup, no matter what he says publicly, and no matter how supportive he is in the Team Room, are a weird mix. I always flash back to the moment in '04 at Oakland Hills when we were pressing Tiger on whether or not he cared about the Ryder Cup, and Tiger finally had enough and asked us: "How many majors has Jack Nicklaus won?" Dutifully, we all answered "18." Tiger then asked, "And what's his Ryder Cup record?" When we all sat there like dumbstruck sheep, unable to produce the answer, Tiger sat back, satisfied.
Team USA has now won as many Ryder Cups without Tiger (one) as it has with Tiger in five other Cups. Tiger was part of a losing team in 1997, 2002, '04 and '06, and while there are tons of reasons other than Tiger why they lost those Cups, I had a feeling that his absence would be important two ways.
One, it would allow Team USA to operate in a Tiger-free zone, not worrying about what he thinks or says, or having to answer any questions about him. His absence allowed rookies like Hunter Mahan, Anthony Kim and J.B. Holmes to play and act more naturally.
Perhaps more importantly, it took away a major target for Team Europe. All of a sudden, Team Europe wasn't the Tiger-less underdogs. Just as most teams enjoy beating the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys more than any other, Team Europe enjoyed beating Tiger and the U.S. more than the alternative. Taking Tiger out of the equation took a bullet out of Europe's motivational arsenal.
No Monty, no Clarke devastated Team Europe
Europe won three in a row and five of six because Europe, from 1997-2006, was in a golden age of Ryder Cup talent, with Colin Montgomerie and Darren Clarke serving, essentially, as the captain and co-captain of the Team Room.
While neither man has won a major championship, Monty has won five Ryder Cups; Clarke four. They are the lions of Team Europe and have served as crushing tone-setters, from Team USA's perspective. Witness Monty's 6-0-2 singles mark for American Sunday heartbreak; and witness Clarke's 6-2-1 fourball record, points he accumulated mostly alongside his partner in crime, Lee Westwood.
Their guidance allowed Sergio Garcia to roam free as the Bobby Brady of Team Europe, everybody's little brother who ran on adrenaline and sugar cereal and never had to be a focal point of leadership. Without Monty or Clarke as ballast, Garcia seemed lost at Valhalla, stripped of his powers. While Westwood made some big putts, he, too, seemed bereft of magic without the big fella from Northern Ireland chomping a cigar and cracking a smile across the green. In the end, the new leaders of Team Europe – Garcia, Westwood and Padraig Harrington – failed to win a single match.
Nick Faldo had only two captain's picks, and you'd be a fool to criticize the pick of Ian Poulter, who wound up being the highest scoring player on either team. Faldo's other captain's pick, Paul Casey, went 0-1-2. Faldo could afford to take one of the two: Casey or Poulter. But by taking them both, he gave the back of his hand to Europe's Ryder Cup winning tradition and left his ballast back in Europe, watching on TV. This leads us to our next point …
Captain's matchup favored Azinger over Faldo
While the European media carved knives for Paul Azinger the past year, thinking him an agitator at best, an insufferable jingoist at worst, they were missing the point: 'Zinger was liked by his players.
The same couldn't be said of Faldo.
The impression was Azinger was doing a lot of hard work the past year, working the range, talking to players, building strategies and thought patterns. Faldo never appeared to have that crazed desire to win the Cup like Azinger. Always more of a loner than 'Zinger, he gave off an odd feeling of ennui throughout. When he benched Garcia and Westwood for Saturday morning, the always-suspicious British press crushed him, calling him "off his rocker" and noting that he'd "lost the plot." While Garcia, apparently, asked out because he didn't feel well – odd – Westwood admitted he wanted to play.
And in the end, perhaps the most important captain's move was Azinger's push to have four captain's picks instead of two. This allowed Azinger's vision of a new team to take shape: allowing J.B. Holmes to take advantage of his Kentucky bloodlines and monster drives; picking Hunter Mahan, knowing his courage was the best-kept secret of the Cup; taking Steve Stricker for the kind of bloodless putt he sank Saturday night for a half-point; taking Chad Campbell for the kind of ball striking he got on 18 in his Friday foursome match with Stewart Cink. The freedom to pick four meant Azinger had 33 percent of his team devoted to him and willing to lay it all on the line.
Six rookies were good for Team USA
On paper, it sounds insane. Europe had two-time major champion Padraig Harrington; multiple Ryder Cup winners Garcia and Westwood; and the better cumulative world rankings. Team USA had half a team room that had never felt the thunder of nerves that accompanies a 15-foot putt to halve a match in front of a crowd roaring "U-S-A!" and a guy with a Swedish accent staring you down across the green.
But here's where the Ryder Cup turned: Team USA needed those newbies. Team USA needed to get rid of Generation Hex. Team USA needed players with no scar tissue, no baggage and, like Team Europe's winning formula of the past decade, an ability to enjoy each other and a desire to create a winning potion.
You'll note whom Cap'n 'Zinger sent out to start his Sunday singles: 23-year-old Kim. The last time Team USA won a Ryder Cup, Kim was a freshman at La Quinta High in California. Nine years later, he's popping his jersey as Sergio dumps two in the water on No. 7. Hell, it's been so long since the U.S. won, the phrase "popping the jersey" didn't even exist.
An unfettered Kim destroyed Garcia, something Garcia will have a hard time forgetting at his next beer commercial shoot, or when he misses his next tiddler to blow a major. The same way Garcia whooped Euro Ryder Cup crowds into a frenzy the past decade, Kim returned serve in spades.
The other signature moment of the day came when Mahan, another rookie, poured in the Valhalla Miracle, the 30-footer at 17 to take a 1-up lead on Casey and prevent Europe from a chance at a full point. Mahan has so little scar tissue, he was quoted this summer ripping the Ryder Cup for its extraneous activity – and he hadn't even played in one! Now that's what I call a fresh attitude.
Team USA got a blood transfusion – and the new stuff works great.
Boo as the X-Factor
Don't let the "My Name is Earl" accent and act fool you. Boo Weekley is a wolf in sheep's clothing, and come to think of it, Weekley is probably out hunting wolves as you read this. He may have spent half his Ryder Cup exhorting fans like a redneck version of Krazy George or Wild Bill Hagy, but his golf was the stuff of royalty. A 2-0-1 mark doesn't begin to tell the story, a story that involves how he got into Europe's cage early with his arm-waving encouragement to fans, causing Westwood to give him the death stare; and a story that involves Weekley later slaying the Westwood Dragon on Saturday afternoon with Holmes for a key full point.
And then there was the part in the story where he galloped off the tee box Sunday, riding his driver, "Happy Gilmore"-style, to the roars of the crowd. Something tells me Ben Hogan didn't do that at the 1947 Ryder Cup in Portland.
In the end, Weekley wound up a symbol of it all: new attitude, new blood, new shot making, new fearlessness, new ability to have fun with the darn thing. Don't underestimate what Weekley's persona meant to the American win, breaking down old walls, one tobacco pinch at a time.
So, all together now … Boo S. A.! Boo S. A.! Boo S.A.!